A little dictator, 1965
I did not learn to read, really, until I was enrolled in a special program in “phonics” at what was then Central State University between second and third grade. Before that, my mother would read Grimm’s and Anderson’s fairy tales out of tattered old illustrated books which I presume dated back to her own childhood. And things like Go Dog Go, of course. After I learned how to read properly, I became an instant bookworm, and my mother limited me to 14 books per library visit—she thought more than one book per day was too much—I should go out and play with the other kids.
I was a bit of a fabulist as a child, particularly when pre-literate. I had no trouble convincing other kids that I was really a creature from Mars (My Favorite Martian was on tv at the time), and I drew and sold maps showing the location of my buried flying saucer, for a quarter. When the saucer hunters would come back dragging shovels, dirty and disappointed, I would say they hadn’t followed the map right, redraw it a little, and charge another quarter. After they left, hope renewed, I would extend my antennae and make myself invisible for the rest of the day. A bit later, a neighborhood girl and I created a religion and gathered our own flock of pint sized believers. Our faith had its own pantheon of imaginary animals which only my co-prophet and I could see and hear, and which required frequent offerings—preferably candy rather than fodder. I look back on this as the time of the Dictatorship of the Imagination, before physical dominance begins its fascist rule of the playground.
Those kids were little lambs who had lost their way; they didn’t need that candy or spare change, they needed to be led to the barn, and then fleeced. In return for their offerings, my partner in preschool paganism and I gave them ritual, order, meaning, an imaginary holy circus and sacred mystery to believe in, be it a flying saucer or pigs with wings in the center ring. This is what all churches do. Our flock was only too happy to make the sacrifices we asked of them. Pint size priestess and shaman had only to bear the burden of unbelief. I used up the role of conman/evangelist before I was 8 years old and thus was freed of the necessity of doing it as an adult. I used up alot of things before I was a legal adult, and ended up as a poet. I am an abject lesson in what happens when someone takes “the road less travelled by” that should have folks lining up to take Matt Reiten‘s predicted oral contraceptive for the prevention of unwanted imagination. Of course, the behavioral contraceptive against imagination is applied in the United States in minimum security detention facilities for teens, aka High School.
Up until the age of eight or so, when a regime change was forced upon me by my own conquest of alphabetic literacy, I ruled a little kingdom of beholding, not by superior force, superior strategy or superior organization, but by superior story telling, superior invention of games, in short by a superior ability to make it all up. The kids I played with accepted this tyranny on my part as if it had been granted to me by divine right.
I think perhaps this is an experience some but not all people of unwonted imagination have as a child. As I was tardy in my submission to the alphabet, my oral narrative ability was unhindered by literacy; many writers learn to read when they are very young, and I think learning to read at least temporarily suppresses the native “Homer” (the epic poet, not Simpson). The social, verbal, extroverted fabulator became a shy, introspective, and introverted bookworm when I learned to read. Reading had a lot, though not everything to do with it.
I turned to books just as third world ex-dictators flee to exile in the south of France. The realms of the written became my refuge from the Camp Concentration of school and the mobocracy of the playground. So I came to literacy as an exile, an expatriot, a deposed king, and it became my adopted home.
Note: This is old yada, which means it was posted to the original Tent Show on Salonblogs, I don’t want to think about how long ago. I’ve revised it slightly.